|February 23, 1999
West Virginia Senate keeps helmet law in close vote
By Karin Fischer
Daily Mail Capitol reporter
By an 18-16 vote, the Senate today rejected an attempt to repeal the state's mandatory motorcycle helmet law.
The bill would have allowed motorcyclists age 21 and older with two years of experience to ride without a helmet. Passengers also would not have been required to wear a helmet under the proposed legislation.
Before voting down the bill, lawmakers unanimously approved an amendment that would have required a three-day training course for all new licensees. The training provision failed with the helmet bill.
All but one of the legislators who addressed the Senate spoke against the legislation, arguing that the state would pay in lives lost and health care costs if the bill passed.
"We see numbers all the time, but these are people," said Health and Human Resources Chairwoman Martha Walker, D-Kanawha.
"If someone has an accident and suffers a severe head injury, who pays? Not always, but often, it is me, it is you, it is the taxpayers of West Virginia."
But in the culmination of nearly hour-long debate, the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. John Mitchell, handed out a piece of draft legislation that would require helmets for automobile drivers.
More than 33,000 people died in automobile accidents nationwide, Mitchell, D-Kanawha, said. Two thousand motorcyclists died in accidents.
"You have the opportunity today to save hundreds, thousands, of additional lives," Mitchell said. "If your only motivation is to save lives, to save the state hundreds, millions of dollars, you would consider this bill."
The real issue is freedom of choice, Mitchell argued.
"We're not talking about numbers, we're talking about freedom of choice," Mitchell said. "Personally, I think it's a bad choice not to wear a helmet . . . but you should not have the right to tell me what to do."
Sen. Michael Oliverio, who has long led the opposition to relaxing the helmet regulations, said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the public's interest in injured motorcyclists overcomes the bikers' right to ride helmetless.
Oliverio praised the persistence of Mitchell and of motorcycle lobbyists. But, he said, the bill is "simply an unreasonable request."
"We have the third-lowest fatality rate in the country," Oliverio, D-Monongalia, said. "Do we want to move up on this list? Do we want more fatalities? . . . I believe this legislation is fatally flawed."
It's too early to tell whether the helmet bill will make another trip through the Capitol halls.
Similar legislation has been introduced for the last several years. It made it as far as the Senate floor on the last night of the session in 1997, where it was defeated by a narrow vote.
Legislation also was introduced in the House, but members said they were waiting to see what action the Senate would take.